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Ad Industry: Here's Why Your Best Talent Is Leaving And What You Can Do About It

Deutsch, working in conjunction with the 4As, surveys ad people and discovers a full 25 percent of them don’t love the business they’re in. How do you get people to fall back in love with the industry and commit to their agencies for the long run? Create a more entrepreneurial culture, says Deutsch CEO Mike Sheldon.

It’s no secret that it’s hard to retain top advertising agency talent. People in the ad business routinely agency hop, spending only a few years in one place before bounding off in search of greener pastures.

Ad agency Deutsch, working in conjunction with the American Association Of Advertising Agencies, attempted to find out why employees across the industry are consistently seeking satisfaction elsewhere, and there was no shortage of people eager to share their views. 1,500 people took part in a survey that has yielded a report titled "Ending the Agency Talent Rotisserie."

"I think people are desperate to be heard," Deutsch CEO Mike Sheldon says of the overwhelming response, noting, "People have bitched about this and talked about this a lot, but nobody has ever studied it."

The results of the study, which Sheldon shared today at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, are eye-opening—for starters, 25 percent of the respondents confessed that they don’t love advertising. "I’ve been in this business for 30 years. I’ve worked on probably 75 different brands, so I know the American business world pretty well, and working in advertising, to me, is the most fun you can have every day," says Sheldon. "So when 25 percent of the people we surveyed say that they don’t love advertising, that gets my attention."

Additionally, 67 percent complained that it’s harder to do great creative than it used to be. And there is a general feeling that advertising isn’t such a creative place to be these days. When asked to name the most creative companies, advertising agencies didn’t even come to mind. Apple was deemed the most creative company by 44 percent, while Google ranked second with 10 percent of the vote.

People also lamented the lack of growth in their jobs, with 69 percent saying their ideal position would offer more chances for growth. Beyond that, people cited an opportunity for growth as the number one reason they left their respective agencies to accept new posts.

A video promoting Deutsch’s Cannes presentation, featuring a dissatisfied ad worker.

Judging by the results of this study, it’s time for everyone in the business to get serious about inspiring employees and keeping them happy, Sheldon says, reasoning, "We’re one of those service businesses where we have nothing else to sell except for our people."

So what can advertising agencies do to retain their staff? "Nail the fundamentals. You have to be able to win new business. You have to be doing brilliant creative work. You have to have a great culture that cares about people and celebrates the wins. You have to have an integrated offering and a modern view on marketing communications that people will rally around," Sheldon says. "Some agencies don’t have these fundamentals, and if you don’t, you can’t go beyond until you check this first box off."

Once you’ve nailed the fundamentals, Sheldon offers this advice:

Adopt a start-up culture
People who work in advertising don’t want to be part of a big Fortune 500 company even if they are part of a big Fortune 500 company, so agencies need to move away from the corporate way of doing business and give people more freedom and power. Deutsch conducted an experiment, Sheldon says, taking seven people out of their day-to-day roles at the agency and giving the newly-created team 30 days to create a new Deutsch website. "It was such a fantastic experience because they got it done in time, and they came up with really extraordinary ideas along the way. We didn’t ask them to get approvals on anything except for the most major strategic directions. All creative, all technology, all user experience was theirs to decide, and the result was perfect. My input or a lot of other people’s input would have slowed that thing down to your typical nine months to a year process," Sheldon says. "People will surprise you if you give them autonomy. They will absolutely do things that you never even thought of."

Put money into R&D
"This is the only industry, I think, that operates without any R&D budget, which is absurd in a business where we’re having to build and make things for our clients, in a business where digital is just exploding," Sheldon says. "We decided to bring our digital production in-house. We hired 40 people without any revenue against them, which is unheard of in this business. But what we knew was we were jobbing out millions of dollars to outside digital production companies who were doing a marginal job at best. We thought we could do at least as good as them, and within the first 12 months, we were at break even, and now almost two years later we’ve got a very profitable group within the agency. The advertising agency industry needs to learn that it can’t just be about client fees funding your business. It’s also got to be about hiring people and building things that don’t have an immediate return on them."

Work in smaller teams
"The smaller you can make your teams and the more nimble, the better. Would you rather sit in a room full of 25 people working on something, or would you rather sit in a room with five? It’s just human nature. It’s much easier to get your ideas across and be productive, and it’s so much more rewarding when you’ve created something in a smaller group," Sheldon says. "But corporate America has demanded larger groups. On paper, it always looks like the more the better. In reality, it drains the creativity from that body of people and homogenizes it and marginalizes it.

Teach employees new things
Give people the opportunity to learn other areas of the business through agency cross-training and bring outsiders into the mix, Sheldon says. Deutsch has a number of education initiatives, including the Deutsch Commons Live program, which has brought in the likes of Pandora founder Tim Westergren and Temple Grandin, an autistic scientist famous for work in humane farming, to share their wisdom with employees.

Support side projects
Agencies need to not only encourage their employees to pursue outside endeavors, they also need to provide resources and celebrate outcomes. "The happiest people are the ones that aren’t just working on a deadline for a client," Sheldon says. "This is the slash generation where someone might be an art director/DJ/surfboard manufacturer, and we have to embrace the slash generation. We have people here that are writing books, making guitar stands, making short form movies and developing a cosmetics line."

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